Academic journal article The Upstart Crow

Philip Davis, Shakespeare Thinking. London: Continuum, 2007

Academic journal article The Upstart Crow

Philip Davis, Shakespeare Thinking. London: Continuum, 2007

Article excerpt

Philip Davis, Shakespeare Thinking. London: Continuum, 2007.

Cognitive theories of the embodied mind have energized many areas of the humanities, sparking responses that range from welcoming to skeptical. For some scholars, neuroscience promises a scientific foundation for humanist research, transcending the mind-body dichotomy by connecting psychic processes to the brain's physical structures. But as David Hawkes's provocative article on neuroscience as the "new materialism" demonstrates, others are far less sanguine about brain science's incursions into the humanities. (1) Hawkes challenges humanists engaged in cognitive studies to answer a question: "Is it true that human beings have no soul?" (21). For Hawkes, the "eliminative materialism" of neuroscience inevitably answers in the affirmative (11). The search for the physical origins of thought reduces humanity to nothing but matter, discarding the human subject as an illusion. Hawkes argues that if humanists accept the embodied mind as truth, the consequences could be devastating, and not only for humanities departments subject to "colonizatiorf' by the natural sciences (21). Neuroscience, he contends, is aligned on a metaphysical level with the capitalist project of endless commodification: it reduces humanity to another type of matter to be monetized and consumed.

Hawkes's essay engendered a series of vigorous, erudite responses, all recently published by the online journal Early Modern Culture. Given the influence of cognitive science on humanities research and the stakes involved, the discussion amongst Hawkes and his interlocutors is passionate, enlightening, and wide-ranging. It is unfortunate, however, that none of the participants took notice of Philip Davis's Shakespeare Thinking, a short but exciting work on the creative cognitive properties of language. In this book, Davis outlines a method of literary analysis that incorporates cognitive science while remaining sensitive to poetic subtleties and the dynamic relationship between mind and brain.

Davis argues that Shakespeare's dramatic verse reveals bits and pieces of "an original text or background script for the creation of life" (1). "Shakespearean thinking" is the name Davis gives to this script. Despite the materiality of the textual metaphor Davis employs, he is interested in action rather than substance. Speed is the most important feature of Shakespearean thinking, which jumps suddenly and unpredictably from place to place like a flash of electricity; it is a "quicker, more physically dispersed form of mentality" that expresses the almost pre-linguistic experience of life as it is in action, before the hardening of experience into memory and its inevitable second-order revisions (2). Rather than examining the content of thought, then, Davis attempts to trace thinking in motion, finding evidence of its passing in the transformations wrought upon language by the electrical flash of thought's sudden leaps and connections.

For the language to analyze such an elusive and ephemeral phenomenon, Davis draws on an eclectic array of sources, most notably a tradition of process philosophy that begins with William Hazlitt and moves through Charles Darwin to John Dewey, William James, and Henri Bergson. Contemplating reality as fluid motion rather than fixed substances, these thinkers provide Davis with a nascent philosophical language to "hold open the momentary" and describe life and thought in action prior to the illusory separation of subject and object and to the fixing of experience in settled concepts (10). It is these moments and motions "between," says Davis, that Shakespeare attempts to capture in verse: the generative processes of thinking as living energies collide with one another.

In a series of subtle and elegant close readings, Davis demonstrates the methodological implications of a focus on thinking over thought. Since Shakespearean thinking exists only when performed, it is not "in" the text. …

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